February 2013, Vol. 25, No.2

The rebirth of water technology R&D



Push for collaboration, knowledge-sharing gives U.S. water industry innovation a kick-start 

After languishing for years in what one industry veteran calls “the Dark Ages of R&D [research and development],” water technology innovation could be on the verge of a renaissance in the U.S. 

At least that is the hope of a small but growing number of industry leaders who are leading the charge. To succeed, they say, utilities will have to move outside their comfort zones, abandon past assumptions, and work together in unconventional ways. 

“There was a period of time after the Clean Water Act passed when the water industry was willing to take risks,” said Jim McQuarrie, operations officer at the Denver Metro Water Reclamation District (MWRD). “Those were the golden years for innovation, and then nothing changed for 25 years. Wastewater treatment became a commodity.” 

Innovation stalled for a variety of reasons, McQuarrie and others said. Chief among them was a lack of funding, according to Matt Ries, chief technical officer at the Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.). “A lot of the federal research money just evaporated,” he said. 

The risk-taking that characterized the 1970s and 1980s also gradually was replaced by a risk-averse culture focused on meeting U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) clean water mandates.   

“For a long time, utilities — including ours — were very slow to adapt new technologies,” McQuarrie said. “Our first responsibility was to protect the environment, and we weren’t willing to try anything that had any less than 100% chance of success.” 

Utilities in other parts of the world, meanwhile, did not have that same luxury, according to Ries. Multiple European countries were under pressure to address the nutrients in their wastewater. Australia faced drought. Geopolitical stressors and water shortages hounded Israel. Singapore needed to wean itself off water imports from Malaysia. 

“These places were forced to innovate,” Ries said. “And guess what? Now they’re known as water innovators.” 


Getting the ball rolling  

Now faced with many of the same environmental and water supply challenges, U.S. utilities are in the position of playing catch-up. They are following different tactics to get there. 

MWRD is what McQuarrie calls an “opportunistic innovator,” noting that “We look for clever, incremental improvements. If there is an opportunity to do something smarter and better and cheaper, we’ll try it.” 

This is different from some of the more methodical approaches that such utilities as Hampton Roads (Va.) Sanitation District (HRSD) and DC Water (Washington, D.C.) have become known for. 

“If you look around the country, the utilities that are doing the most work in treatment technologies are the ones who must spend a lot to update their treatment plants,” said Charles Bott, chief of special projects at HRSD. “When a $150 million capital project is looming, it’s a lot easier to justify a project that looks at a new technology, particularly if it will save a lot of money.” 

HRSD has eight such projects under way, each focused on ways to remove nitrogen and phosphorus from wastewater more cost-effectively, Bott said. Some involve scaling up work done in a lab. Others involve bringing technologies developed and tested elsewhere to the North American market. Several, Bott emphasized, are being conducted jointly with nearby DC Water. 


Finding new ways to foster collaboration  

Collaboration and knowledge-sharing, such as that between HRSD and DC Water, are key if the U.S. is to regain its position as a water technology leader, Bott said. 

“Historically, new technologies have been piloted 15 times by 15 different utilities,” Bott said. “Our industry has got to get beyond that. It’s expensive, and it slows things down.” It is also unnecessary, he added.   

“For any one utility to take on a new technology, it’s a big risk,” Bott said. “By doing research, you can learn ways to manage that risk. Once you gain experience with a technology, you should share it with others.”   

Because utilities don’t compete with one another, they have all the more reason to collaborate, Bott said. 

But how? 

This is a question people like Jeff Moeller, senior program director for the Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF; Alexandria, Va.), have given serious consideration in recent years. It’s what led last summer to the formation of the Leaders Innovation Forum For Technology (LIFT), a joint effort of WEF and WERF. 

“Our members had expressed a need for utility R&D directors to work together to accelerate new technology adoption and water industry innovation,” Moeller said. 

This is precisely what LIFT is designed to do. Its Technology Evaluation Program (TEP), for example, enables utilities to share the cost of new-technology demonstrations. Work groups are being formed to enable utilities to share knowledge and experiences. 

An August 2012 survey of the original 25 members of the LIFT TEP Working Group identified the five areas of greatest interest. Each represents a real, practical need: shortcut nitrogen removal, phosphorus recovery, predigestion, biosolids-to-energy technologies, and electricity generation from water. 

The survey served another important purpose, Moeller said. It created a networking platform for working group members. “If I’m testing new nitrogen removal technologies, I can use the survey results to learn who else is already doing it,” Moeller said. 

While LIFT is still in its infancy, interest in the program is high. Membership in the TEP Working Group has mushroomed from 25 to more than 100, representing nearly 50 utilities and industrial end users, Moeller said. More than 55 people from across North America traveled to Chicago in December to attend the group’s first meeting, a sidestream deammonification workshop. 


Technology clusters, regulators, universities play important roles  

Water industry leaders also are finding other ways to share information. 

In places such as Fresno, Calif., and Milwaukee, utilities are joining with businesses, universities, and government groups to leverage their water technology expertise and market themselves as water technology clusters.  

“These clusters are economic development engines for a region,” Ries said. “They’re built off of the potential growth and need in the water sector.” 

In some cases, regulators are stepping up to help. A $5 million investment from EPA, for example, is enabling the new Cincinnati region Water Technology Innovation Cluster to de velop, test, and market innovative water processes and technologies. 

It’s necessary for regulators to be part of the technology development process, Ries noted. “Utilities need regulatory permits to be written in ways that allow innovation to happen,” he said. 

Collaboration with universities also is essential. HRSD, DC Water, and Denver MWRD are among a small number of utilities that hire graduate engineering students to assist in their onsite research. 

Nancy Love, a professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), said she hopes other utilities might follow suit. 

“We want students to have field experiences that give them practical connections to the industry,” Love said. She advocates the formation of a national database of utilities and consulting firms willing to fund graduate engineering degrees and internship programs. 

These programs do more than support research, Love said. They also can be a powerful recruiting tool. “Seventy-five percent of water professionals are expected to retire in 10 years, and the people coming in behind them aren’t there,” Love said. “This is a way to get them interested in the industry.” 


A changing mind-set  

Trusting the results of another utility’s pilot test, funding graduate degree programs — these are outside-the-box approaches for many water utilities. 

But finding ways to take controlled risks is becoming necessary, especially in light of tighter budgets and more-stringent water quality requirements. “We are living in a resource-constrained world, and that goes for water resources, nutrient resources, and financial resources,” Ries said. 

“Innovation doesn’t have to be a ‘widget,’” McQuarrie said. “It also means recognizing an opportunity. We have an obligation to our ratepayers to innovate and challenge the conventional way of doing things.” 

— Mary Bufe, WE&T  



Attack of the 'super bug'


Study finds the antibiotic-resistant bacteria MRSA present in WRRFs   

While microconstituents in wastewater continue to be a growing public concern and there is a greater push to remove these trace contaminants, recent research findings show the water sector may be facing yet another challenge: the “superbug” methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Researchers at the University of Maryland (College Park) School of Public Health and University of Nebraska (Omaha) Medical Center discovered MRSA at all of the four U.S. water resource recovery facilities (WRRFs) they tested, though MRSA presence decreased with treatment.   



In some ways, the researchers’ findings aren’t new. Swedish researchers made a similar discovery when they tested for MRSA at WRRFs in Sweden, but this is “the first study to investigate U.S. wastewater as a potential environmental reservoir,” said Amy R. Sapkota, assistant professor at the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health (College Park) and research study leader, in a University of Maryland news release.  

MRSA can be transmitted through a multitude of pathways, including feces, which is why it may be making its way to WRRFs, the researchers speculated. But the bacteria pose a big threat because, according to the news release, the superbug “is well known for causing difficult-to-treat and potentially fatal bacterial infections in hospital patients, but since the late 1990s it has also been infecting otherwise healthy people in community settings.”   

The team collected wastewater samples from four WRRFs in the United States — two in the mid-Atlantic and two in the Midwest. According to the news release, these facilities were chosen in part because their treated effluent is reused for spray irrigation. The researchers wanted to know whether MRSA remained in the effluent.  

They found that MRSA and its related pathogen, methicillin-susceptible Staphylococcus aureus (MSSA), were present at all four WRRFs, with MRSA in half of all samples and MSSA in 55% of samples. MRSA was present in 83% of the influent at all plants.  

The researchers noted that the percentage of MRSA- and MSSA-positive samples decreased during successive steps in the wastewater treatment process. Only one WRRF had the bacteria in the treated effluent leaving the facility. This WRRF does not regularly use chlorination.  

Ninety-three percent of the MRSA strains and 29% of MSSA strains that were isolated from the wastewater were resistant to two or more classes of antibiotics, “including several that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has specifically approved for treating MRSA infections,” according to the news release.  

“Our findings raise potential public health concerns for wastewater treatment plant workers and individuals exposed to reclaimed wastewater,” said Rachel Rosenberg Goldstein, an environmental health doctoral student in the University of Maryland School of Public Health, in the news release. “Because of increasing use of reclaimed wastewater, further research is needed to evaluate the risk of exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria in treated wastewater.”  

The study findings appear in the November 2012 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives.   

— LaShell Stratton-Childers, WE&T  


Flood protection, climate change adaptation rising to the forefront

Governments embrace smart technology and community education in preparation for expected changes  

Both within and outside the U.S., more municipalities and governments are implementing long-term flood protection and management measures as a means for better preparing lowland and urban coastal populations for storm surges, higher-intensity weather, and rising sea levels associated with climate change. As was demonstrated by the widespread devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy, the need for greater adaptation measures for protecting vulnerable communities is becoming increasingly more urgent. 

Current research indicates that coastal cities and low-lying urban populations may be at considerable risk in the years to come. For example, according to the findings of a recent study by researchers at the Center for Technology and Systems Management (CTSM) of the University of Maryland (College Park), current trends and predicted increases suggest that Washington, D.C., is likely to face flooding and infrastructure damage in both the short and long term from sea-level rise (SLR) and associated increases in storm intensity and rate. 

Using geographic information system (GIS) tools and government agency data, and applying a linear trend analysis to historic data measurements, the researchers found that an SLR of only 0.1 m by the year 2043 would flood 103 properties, causing $2.1 billion in damages. A longer-term SLR of 1.0 m would affect 180 properties, resulting in $4.2 billion in damages, but for a more than 2.5-m SLR, the estimates “become staggering … at 5.0 m SLR the numbers increase to a dramatic 1225 properties and at least $24.6 billion,” according to the research report. 

“The high-end estimates are actually very realistic if we compare them to the recorded surges and dollar amount of damage resulting from [Superstorm] Sandy,” said Bilal Ayyub, University of Maryland professor of civil and environmental engineering and CTSM director, who led the study. 

But despite the levels of forecasted risk, predictions may still be underestimated. “The rate of SLR used was a conservative estimate, and the inventories evaluated were incomplete, because some key existing asset layers were unavailable to the study,” Ayyub said. 

The report concluded that “decisions must be made in the near future by lawmakers or city planners on how to reduce the impact of and adapt to SLR. A planned retreat is not an option when dealing with SLR in such an important area.” 



In response to greater concerns associated with flooding and storm surges, Leslie Shoemaker, senior vice president of corporate strategy at Tetra Tech (Pasadena, Calif.), said climate change adaptation studies are increasingly linked to action or adaptation readiness. “Five years ago, adaptation studies were primarily academic in nature, but the studies we are conducting now are more oriented toward the concept of ‘smart-readiness,’” Shoemaker said. “Cities, utilities, and governments are becoming more aware of the need to incorporate the smartest measures to better prepare populations.” 

Climate change adaptation plans also are becoming more multidimensional. “In addition to the potential impacts from SLR and storm surges, there are also risks associated with flash flooding events and from flooding caused by higher tides pushing excessive water up river systems,” Shoemaker said. 

Tetra Tech is developing a climate change adaptation study for Rhode Island water utilities, examining implications related to SLR, storm surge, and coastal and riverine flooding. The study also includes the development of management strategies to address changing conditions, as well as the identification of hazards and the assets that should be protected. 

Another, larger-scale effort includes the Coral Triangle Initiative, a climate-change adaptation program supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development that involves Indonesia, East Timor, the Philippines, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. “These governments are starting to develop action and readiness plans, since many communities in these countries would be profoundly impacted by only small increases in SLR,” Shoemaker said. “Response measures integrate science with community education. It is not just the hard engineering, but also education and awareness [that are] needed to build a community’s resilience to climate change impacts.” 

Advancements in instrumentation and smart technology have made a significant difference in the ability of cities and utilities to incorporate higher levels of preparedness and flood management, according to Shoemaker. “With more-sophisticated modeling, we can better anticipate where impacts will occur, where to build shoreline protection structures, and how to manage them more efficiently in the event of flooding,” she said. “Part of a successful flood management system includes correctly mapping, identifying, repairing, or re-engineering existing systems and finding the most optimal places to invest in new infrastructure.” 


Adaptation planning for Los Angeles County  

In Southern California, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works (DPW) is pursuing several planning and response initiatives in preparation for expected shifts related to climate change. The measures include adaptation plans related to flood management, SLR, and adjustments to expected changes in weather patterns, including higher-intensity storms. 

" Climate change planning is not a stand-alone approach; we are incorporating it into all of our planning assumptions,” said Mark Pestrella, assistant director of DPW. 

Based on a minimum future SLR of 0.6 m (2 ft) estimated by a University of Southern California (Los Angeles) climate change study, DPW is considering potential effects to the region’s rivers, dams, and coastal infrastructure systems, including possible impacts to the groundwater basin, where recycled water is introduced to create a subterranean barrier to prevent saltwater intrusion. 

“In Marina del Rey, which has a large community that could be impacted by SLR, we are preparing a long-range adaptation plan that includes looking at the need to reinforce or potentially raise existing sea walls,” Pestrella said. “Beach erosion is another significant component. We are working with the [U.S.] Army Corps of Engineers on developing an erosion model that predicts impacts for Los Angeles County.” 

DPW also has begun to prepare for more-severe weather patterns, including higher-intensity storms over shorter time periods. “We are anticipating a fundamental change in the nature of storms,” Pestrella said. 

"Currently, our systems are set up for slow-moving storms that might deliver rain over a 3-day period. But in the future, we are projecting more sudden and intense rains that can cause excessive flooding all at once. With the increased potential for these types of events, we need to equip our maintenance, operations, and facilities to handle that kind of rainfall, including building more capacity into our relief drains.” 


St ate and local approaches in Massachusetts  

Recognizing potentially serious risks to the state’s coastal infrastructure, businesses, public health, and natural ecosystems, the State of Massachusetts in 2011 released its Climate Change Adaptation Report, a comprehensive overview of observed and predicted changes to the state’s climate that provides a framework for analyzing strategic, long-term solutions for adapting to potential impacts associated with climate change. 

Drawing on long-term data sets and trends of recorded changes, the report outlines several cross-cutting strategies for adaptation, such as developing risk and vulnerability assessments, building adaptation thinking into current capital planning, and encouraging adaptation planning at the ecosystem level, said Bruce Carlisle, director of the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management and a member of the report steering committee. 

“The report places a premium on the importance of using current and accurate data for identifying risks associated with flooding, inundation, or hydrologic changes, leading to improved planning and decision-making,” Carlisle said. 

Consistent with the strategies outlined in the adaptation report, the Office of Coastal Zone Management launched the Storm Smart Coasts Program for helping coastal communities address challenges arising from storms, floods, and SLR. “Most critical land-use decisions in Massachusetts are made at the local level, so there is a strong focus on working closely with local governments in providing direct training, such as webinars, GIS workshops, and instruction in the use of tools that can be used to identify hazards and better prepare for them,” according to Carlisle. “The program also emphasizes planning, local regulations and standards, and mitigation, including retrofitting buildings or elevating structures above base flood levels.” 

One project being initiated in collaboration with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coastal Services Center includes using high-resolution light-detection and ranging technology in the development of a Web-based visualization tool for modeling different possible SLR intervals. 

“This is a great example of how technology and information can improve our efforts toward floodplain and shoreline management,” Carlisle said. “We have coastal communities facing chronic erosion, flooding, or storm surge problems that will only be exacerbated by climate change. It’s important to put better information in their hands.” 

— Jeff Gunderson, WE&T  

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